There are plenty of filmmakers out there who have a hard enough time keeping one plot straight during a movie, let alone five so, naturally, a multi-storied comedy like What To Expect When You’re Expecting really presents its own special kind of challenge. With so many balls in the air it’s the responsibility of the director to keep everything in order and prevent it all from falling apart. So what’s Kirk Jones’ secret? It’s simple: he just takes it one thing at a time.
During a recent press day in Los Angeles for the film – which arrives in theaters this Friday – I had the chance to sit down one-on-one with Jones to discuss his latest movie. Check out the interview below in which the filmmaker talks about his preparation process for each day, the importance of getting everything right at the script stage, and the difference between working from one of his own scripts and someone else’s. Check it out!
This film falls into the subgenre of multi-layered romantic comedies, and I’m curious why you think that these types of movies are so popular.
I think people are entertained by a story being approached from so many different angles. So structurally it’s always quite interesting. And with pregnancy, on this occasion, knowing that the whole thing about pregnancy is that everybody’s experience is different. Multiple stories allow the audience to share in everything that is going on. And by sharing in what’s going on and seeing so many characters, there’s this energy, and there’s humor and there’s drama in comparing all of the stories, which are taking place at the same time. And I also think that, undoubtedly, it allows audiences to feel like they’re getting a bigger hit of their favorite actors. Because instead of it being a two-hander, of course which is great, they’ve got 10 lead actors. So I think that’s one of the reasons, but I think seeing a story, contrasting people’s experience of the same thing is pretty entertaining.
When you’re making a film like this, are you focusing on each story as you’re filming it or are you trying to keep the entire movie in your head at the same time?
This is the first time that I’ve shot five simultaneous stories like this, and I loved it. I love playing around with story structure. Through necessity we had to schedule the film so that I shot everything with Jennifer Lopez in two weeks, everything with Cameron Diaz in two weeks… because they are not available to keep flying in from another continent for two days work and then flying back again. And also, from a cost point of view it always makes sense when you’re shooting the film. But the upside of that was I felt like I was really able to focus on Jennifer’s story for two weeks, then I waved goodbye to her, she goes, Cameron comes in, so not only was I really focused on the story, but my crew were very focused and the actors were very focused. We were dealing with one story at a time. So we shot it all separately and then just trusted that when it was all put together it would work out.
It was no more intense than usual, which surprises me, actually. I’d heard nightmare stories on other movies where it had taken them three or four months to get to a sensible length. I heard on one movie the cut was three and a half hours long, and then they had to start pulling out stories. I think the first cut was just over two hours, which is completely normal for a film of this length, so I was surprised at how little problems we had in the cutting room. I like to prepare as much as possible before I go into a shoot. I used to work in the cutting room when I grew up, as an assistant film editor. But I became aware of how easy it is to solve problems at the script stage – it’s literally two minutes with someone typing in a few words and the problem is solved. If you don’t do it in the script stage, you shoot it, you waste time, you waste money, you end up in the cutting room and things don’t work, then you have to reshoot them. It’s just a no-brainer. Get it to a stage where you think it’s right – it doesn’t mean it’s going to be right, but spend as much time as you can on the script in the first place. It just saves you so much time and money. But I was amazed at how easily it came together.
With comedies there are a lot of directors who fly by the seat of their pants and find what they’re looking for on the day. Are you the opposite and try and stick to the script as much as possible?
I feel uncomfortable if I don’t have a plan. I’m not one of those directors who will just turn up and be like, “Alright, what are we doing today?” I’m one of those who tends to wake up in the middle of the night and goes over stuff and wakes up early. So when I get on set I can almost blindfolded tell everyone how the scene should go. But what I try to do once I have that basic plan of how to survive, I then try, increasingly as I get older, looking for ways to make that better and better and better and better. I think when I was younger I would often stick to my plan, I’d turn up and I’d have my shot list, storyboards, and I’d do it and do it. As I got older and just a little bit more confident, I guess, I can see the value of improvising, keeping an open mind. So if I rehearse it one way and the cinematographer says to me, “Have you thought about doing this in a wide shot,” and I’m thinking, “Hmm, should we?” whereas in the old days I would have said, “No, no, don’t talk to me. I know what I’m doing.” I will always listen to the crew and I kind of listen to my instincts on the day. And that’s all fine as long as you don’t have a huge time pressure, which normally you do. So it can be tough turning up and knowing that you have three hours to shoot a scene, and then making changes and improvising and stuff.
In your career you’ve directed two films from your own script and two films from someone else’s script, this one included in the latter category. Do you have a preference in terms of working one way or the other?
I can’t deny that it’s more rewarding to work from my own script. To go through that process of sitting at home with my computer, thinking of the idea, formulating the dialogue, maybe putting in a joke that I think audiences will respond to. Handing those pages to someone like Robert De Niro, shooting it, looking at it in the cutting room, see it in the theater, and actually hearing people laugh where I hoped they would laugh! Or crying when I was hoping I was engaging them emotionally. There’s absolutely nothing like it. Just taking it through the whole process. But the reality is that takes me quite a long time, to find projects and to write projects. And I’m consistently getting scripts put into my mailbox, which are ready to go. This is a script from so and so, they want to know if you’re interested. It’s greenlit, it’s ready to go, so and so actor is interested. So all I have to do is say, “Yes, I’m interested,” whereas when I write my own script it’s a lot of work. Sometimes you can’t get anything done, sometimes you can get something done. So it’s just a longer process.